At 6.22 AM on Sunday, 23 October 1983, a smiling young man drove a yellow Mercedes truck through barbed-wire entanglements and sandbag barriers and straight into Beirut International Airport's four-story Aviation Safety Building, used as the headquarters-barracks of the Eighth Marine Battalion, part of a multinational peacekeeping force (U.S., Great Britain, France and Italy) in strife-torn Lebanon. The truck was packed with explosives and the driver was a Shiite terrorist on a suicide mission. When the truck exploded, the building collapsed into a pile of rubble, killing 234 Marines. Another 112 were extricated from the wreckage, of whom seven would later die from their injuries. This was the highest American military casualty rate since the opening day of the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam. It was determined that the truck-bomb explosion was equivalent to the force of 12,000 pounds of TNT, the biggest non-nuclear blast in history.
Several days were required to remove the dead and wounded from the rubble. The latter were transported to the assault ship USS Iwo Jima, part of the Sixth Fleet that was prowling the waters just offshore, as well as to the American University Hospital, British RAF hospitals in Cyprus, and U.S. military hospitals in Italy and West Germany. While Vice-President George Bush braved enemy sniper fire from the nearby Hay es Sullum area of Beirut to survey the scene of carnage first-hand and award two Purple Hearts to survivors, Marine Commandant General Paul X. Kelley was moved to tears when he visited the wounded at the Weisbaden, West Germany hospital; one of the Marine victims, Lance Corporal Jeffrey Nashton, though unable to see or speak, asked for a pen and paper and wrote a brief but poignant message for Kelly -- all it said was Semper Fi.
Lebanon's civil war erupted in 1975 between Christian Phalangists on one hand and Muslims and Palestinian refugees from the West Bank on the other. To protect its northern border, Israel occupied southern Lebanon. Syrian troops moved in to occupy other portions of the beleaguered country. An uneasy truce was eventually brokered, and the multinational peacekeeping force moved in to back the Phalange government and monitor the withdrawal of the PLO as well as Syrian and Israeli troops. Four weeks prior to the bombing, the U.S. Senate resolved by a 54-46 vote to permit President Reagan to keep the Marines in Lebanon for the sake of peace. After the bombing, Secretary of State George Shultz met with French, Italian and British diplomats in La Celle-Saint-Cloud on the outskirts of Paris; subsequently, the four governments reiterated a commitment to remain in Lebanon until peace was secured. (Nonetheless, the Marines were out of Lebanon three months later, and the civil war raged on.)
When news of the tragedy reached him early Sunday morning, Reagan was asleep in the Eisenhower Cottage at Georgia's Augusta National Golf Club. He was there for a weekend of R&R -- but hadn't gotten much of either. On Saturday afternoon the president had been playing a round of golf with Secretary Shultz, Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, and New Jersey Senator Nicholas Brady. They were on the 16th fairway when an unemployed pipefitter named Charles Harris drove his pickup truck through a gate and, brandishing a .38 caliber pistol, took seven hostages in the club's pro shop, six hundred yards from the presidential party. Secret Service agents rushed Reagan to the safety of an armored limousine, where he was told that the gunman threatened to kill his hostages unless he spoke to the president. Reagan tried five times without success to talk to Harris on the limousine phone; Harris refused to believe it was really the president on the line. Two hours later he surrendered. None of the hostages were harmed.
Prior to this bizarre incident -- at 2:45 AM Saturday morning -- Secretary Shultz had been informed that the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States was requesting U.S. military assistance to restore stability to the island nation of Grenada. Marxist Prime Minister Maurice Bishop had been executed by a unit of the Grenadian army cooperating in a military coup led by pro-Soviet hardliners. Reagan was briefed at 5:15 AM and informed that the lives of 1,000 Americans on the island, including 600 students at St. George's School of Medicine, were at risk. A Marine battalion and a naval task force destined for the Middle East were quickly diverted to the Caribbean. The president wanted to return to Washington immediately, but aides convinced him that a sudden change in his schedule might draw unwanted attention to the planned intervention. To maintain a strict secrecy advantageous to the invasion units, Congress and the press were kept in the dark until 1,900 Paratroopers and Rangers struck at dawn on 25 October 1983. They met heavy resistance from Grenadian army units and 750 armed Cubans working on a new airport at Point Salines. Fighting continued for four days before the island was secured and all Americans were rescued. Eighteen American soldiers lost their lives, as did approximately 200 Cuban and Grenadian combatants. Twenty Grenadian civilians were slain when U.S. planes mistakenly bombed the Fort Frederick mental hospital, located adjacent to the intended target: Grenadian army headquarters at Fort Rupert.
Documents and weapons caches seized by American troops indicated that Grenada was, as Reagan put it, "a Soviet-Cuban colony being readied as a major military bastion." It was believed that the unfinished airport was designed to service Cuban and Soviet military aircraft. Speculation arose that moderate Maurice Bishop's assurances to the West that the airport would not be used for that purpose may have been the last straw for Marxist hardliners who thought he was becoming too "soft."
Though a majority of Americans approved of the invasion, a UN Security Council resolution condemned it as a violation of international law. Even British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Reagan's friend and ally, was critical. She believed the invasion would be viewed by most of the world as naked aggression by the U.S. against a defenseless little island nation. She was right, and Soviet propagandists had a field day. Though Congress was offended that the Reagan administration, fearing leaks, had not notified it of the invasion until ninety minutes before the Marines landed, its outcry was muted by the American public's support for the action.
The U.S. occupying force was removed from Grenada by year's end. A pro-Western interim government was installed until such time as free elections could be held, and most Grenadian residents were reportedly satisfied with the outcome. All Soviet, Cuban and Libyan representatives were expelled from the island. The United States sent Peace Corps volunteers and nearly $50 million in emergency assistance to Grenada. Soon, American business interests were hunting investment opportunities on the island, and the tourist trade was on the upswing.
At the time critics accused the Reagan administration of staging the invasion to divert attention from the debacle in Lebanon. But Reagan decided to engage in the Grenada "rescue" on Saturday, October 22 -- he did not learn of the terrorist bombing in Beirut until the following morning.